First published in two parts in The Sunday Statesman, June 4 2006, The Statesman June 5 2006, Editorial Page Special Article
by Subroto Roy
From the 1846 Treaty of Amritsar creating the State of Jammu & Kashmir until the collapse of the USSR in 1991, Britain and later the USA became increasingly interested in the subcontinent’s Northwest. The British came to India by sea to trade. Barren, splendid, landlocked Afghanistan held no interest except as a home of fierce tribes; but it was the source of invasions into the Indian plains and prompted a British misadventure to install Shah Shuja in place of Dost Mohammad Khan leading to ignominious defeat. Later, Afghanistan was seen as the underbelly of the Russian and Soviet empires, and hence a location of interest to British and American strategic causes.
In November 1954, US President Dwight Eisenhower authorized 30 U-2 spy aircraft to be produced for deployment against America’s perceived enemies, especially to investigate Soviet nuclear missiles which could reach the USA. Reconnaissance balloons had been unsuccessful, and numerous Western pilots had been shot down taking photographs from ordinary military aircraft. By June 1956, U-2 were making clandestine flights over the USSR and China. But on May 1 1960, one was shot or forced down over Sverdlovsk, 1,000 miles within Soviet territory. The Americans prevaricated that it had taken off from Turkey on a weather-mission, and been lost due to oxygen problems. Nikita Kruschev then produced the pilot, Francis Gary Powers, who was convicted of spying, though was exchanged later for a Soviet spy. Powers had been headed towards Norway, his task to photograph Soviet missiles from 70,000 ft, his point of origin had been an American base 20 miles from Peshawar.
America needed clandestine “forward bases” from which to fly U-2 aircraft, and Pakistan’s ingratiating military and diplomatic establishment was more than willing to offer such cooperation, fervently wishing to be seen as a “frontline state” against the USSR. “We will help you defeat the USSR and we are hopeful you will help us defeat India” became their constant refrain. By 1986, the Americans had been permitted to build air-bases in Balochistan and also use Mauripur air-base near Karachi.
Jammu & Kashmir and especially Gilgit-Baltistan adjoins the Pashtun regions whose capital has been Peshawar. In August-November 1947, a British coup d’etat against J&K State secured Gilgit-Baltistan for the new British Dominion of Pakistan.
The Treaty of Amritsar had nowhere required Gulab Singh’s dynasty to accept British political control in J&K as came to be exercised by British “Residents” in all other Indian “Native States”. Despite this, Delhi throughout the late 19th Century relentlessly pressed Gulab Singh’s successors Ranbir Singh and Partab Singh to accept political control. The Dogras acquiesced eventually. Delhi’s desire for control had less to do with the welfare of J&K’s people than with protection of increasing British interests in the area, like European migration to Srinagar Valley and guarding against Russian or German moves in Afghanistan. “Sargin” or “Sargin Gilit”, later corrupted by the Sikhs and Dogras into “Gilgit”, had an ancient people who spoke an archaic Dardic language “intermediate between the Iranian and the Sanskritic”. “The Dards were located by Ptolemy with surprising accuracy on the West of the Upper Indus, beyond the headwaters of the Swat River (Greek: Soastus) and north of the Gandarae (i.e. Kandahar), who occupied Peshawar and the country north of it. This region was traversed by two Chinese pilgrims, Fa-Hsien, coming from the north about AD 400 and Hsuan Tsiang, ascending from Swat in AD 629, and both left records of their journeys.”
Gilgit had been historically ruled by a Hindu dynasty called Trakane; when they became extinct, Gilgit Valley “was desolated by successive invasions of neighbouring rulers, and in the 20 or 30 years ending with 1842 there had been five dynastic revolutions. The Sikhs entered Gilgit about 1842 and kept a garrison there.” When J&K came under Gulab Singh, “the Gilgit claims were transferred with it, and a boundary commission was sent” by the British. In 1852 the Dogras were driven out with 2,000 dead. In 1860 under Ranbir Singh, the Dogras “returned to Gilgit and took Yasin twice, but did not hold it. They also in 1866 invaded Darel, one of the most secluded Dard states, to the south of the Gilgit basin but withdrew again.”
The British appointed a Political Agent in Gilgit in 1877 but he was withdrawn in 1881. “In 1889, in order to guard against the advance of Russia, the British Government, acting as the suzerain power of Kashmir, established the Gilgit Agency”. The Agency was re-established under control of the British Resident in Jammu & Kashmir. “It comprised the Gilgit Wazarat; the State of Hunza and Nagar; the Punial Jagir; the Governorships of Yasin, Kuh-Ghizr and Ishkoman, and Chilas”. In 1935, the British demanded J&K lease to them for 60 years Gilgit town plus most of the Gilgit Agency and the hill-states Hunza, Nagar, Yasin and Ishkuman. Hari Singh had no choice but to acquiesce. The leased region was then treated as part of British India, administered by a Political Agent at Gilgit responsible to Delhi, first through the Resident in J& K and later a British Agent in Peshawar. J& K State no longer kept troops in Gilgit and a mercenary force, the Gilgit Scouts, was recruited with British officers and paid for by Delhi. In April 1947, Delhi decided to formally retrocede the leased areas to Hari Singh’s J& K State as of 15 August 1947. The transfer was to formally take place on 1 August.
On 31 July, Hari Singh’s Governor arrived to find “all the officers of the British Government had opted for service in Pakistan”. The Gilgit Scouts’ commander, a Major William Brown aged 25, and his adjutant, a Captain Mathieson, planned openly to engineer a coup détat against Hari Singh’s Government. Between August and October, Gilgit was in uneasy calm. At midnight on 31 October 1947, the Governor was surrounded by the Scouts and the next day he was “arrested” and a provisional government declared.
Hari Singh’s nearest forces were at Bunji, 34 miles from Gilgit, a few miles downstream from where the Indus is joined by Gilgit River. The 6th J& K Infantry Battalion there was a mixed Sikh-Muslim unit, typical of the State’s Army, commanded by a Lt Col. Majid Khan. Bunji controlled the road to Srinagar. Further upstream was Skardu, capital of Baltistan, part of Laddakh District where there was a small garrison. Following Brown’s coup in Gilgit, Muslim soldiers of the 6th Infantry massacred their Sikh brothers-at-arms at Bunji. The few Sikhs who survived escaped to the hills and from there found their way to the garrison at Skardu.
On 4 November 1947, Brown raised the new Pakistani flag in the Scouts’ lines, and by the third week of November a Political Agent from Pakistan had established himself at Gilgit. Brown had engineered Gilgit and its adjoining states to first secede from J&K, and, after some talk of being independent, had promptly acceded to Pakistan. His commander in Peshawar, a Col. Bacon, as well as Col. Iskander Mirza, Defence Secretary in the new Pakistan and later to lead the first military coup détat and become President of Pakistan, were pleased enough. In July 1948, Brown was awarded an MBE (Military) and the British Governor of the NWFP got him a civilian job with ICI~ which however sent him to Calcutta, where he came to be attacked and left for dead on the streets by Sikhs avenging the Bunji massacre. Brown survived, returned to England, started a riding school, and died in 1984. In March 1994, Pakistan awarded his widow the Sitara-I-Pakistan in recognition of his coup détat.
Gilgit’s ordinary people had not participated in Brown’s coup which carried their fortunes into the new Pakistan, and to this day appear to remain without legislative representation. It was merely assumed that since they were mostly Muslim in number they would wish to be part of Pakistan ~ which also became Liaquat Ali Khan’s assumption about J&K State as a whole in his 1950 statements in North America. What the Gilgit case demonstrates is that J&K State’s descent into a legal condition of ownerless anarchy open to “Military Decision” had begun even before the Pakistani invasion of 22 October 1947 (viz. “Solving Kashmir”, The Statesman, 1-3 December 2005). Also, whatever else the British said or did with respect to J & K, they were closely allied to the new Pakistan on the matter of Gilgit.
The peak of Pakistan’s Anglo-American alliance came with the enormous support in the 1980s to guerrilla forces created and headquartered in Peshawar, to battle the USSR and Afghan communists directly across the Durand Line. It was this guerrilla war which became a proximate cause of the collapse of the USSR as a political entity in 1991. President Ronald Reagan’s CIA chief William J. Casey sent vast sums in 1985-1988 to supply and train these guerrillas. The Washington Post and New Yorker reported the CIA training guerrillas “in the use of mortars, rocket grenades, ground-to-air missiles”. 200 hand-held Stinger missiles were supplied for the first time in 1986 and the New Yorker reported Gulbudin Hikmatyar’s “Hizbe Islami” guerrillas being trained to bring down Soviet aircraft. “Mujahideen had been promised two Stingers for every Soviet aircraft brought down. Operators who failed to aim correctly were given additional training… By 1986, the United States was so deeply involved in the Afghan war that Soviet aircraft were being brought down under the supervision of American experts”. (Raja Anwar, The Tragedy of Afghanistan, 1988, p. 234).
The budding US-China détente brokered by Pakistan came into full bloom here. NBC News on 7 January 1980 said “for the first time in history (a senior State Department official) publicly admitted the possibility of concluding a military alliance between the United States and China”. London’s Daily Telegraph reported on 5 January 1980 “China is flying large supplies of arms and ammunition to the insurgents in Afghanistan. According to diplomatic reports, supplies have arrived in Pakistan from China via the Karakoram Highway…. A major build-up of Chinese involvement is underway ~ in the past few days. Scores of Chinese instructors have arrived at the Shola-e-Javed camps.”
Afghan reports in 1983-1985 said “there were eight training camps near the Afghan border operated by the Chinese in Sinkiang province” and that China had supplied the guerrillas “with a variety of weapons including 40,000 RPG-7 and 20,000 RPG-II anti tank rocket launchers.” Like Pakistan, “China did not publicly admit its involvement in the Afghan conflict: in 1985 the Chinese Mission at the UN distributed a letter denying that China was extending any kind of help to the Afghan rebels” (Anwar, ibid. p. 234). Support extended deep and wide across the Arab world. “The Saudi and Gulf rulers … became the financial patrons of the Afghan rebels from the very start of the conflict”. Anwar Sadat, having won the Nobel Peace Prize, was “keen to claim credit for his role in Afghanistan…. by joining the Afghanistan jihad, Sadat could re-establish his Islamic credentials, or so he believed. He could thus not only please the Muslim nations but also place the USA and Israel in his debt.” Sadat’s Defence Minister said in January 1980: “Army camps have been opened for the training of Afghan rebels; they are being supplied with weapons from Egypt” and Sadat told NBC News on 22 September 1981 “that for the last twenty-one months, the USA had been buying arms from Egypt for the Afghan rebels. He said he had been approached by the USA in December 1979 and he had decided to `open my stores’. He further disclosed that these arms were being flown to Pakistan from Egypt by American aircraft. Egypt had vast supplies of SAM-7 and RPG-7 anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons which Sadat agreed to supply to Afghanistan in exchange for new American arms. The Soviet weapons, being light, were ideally suited to guerrilla warfare. … the Mujahideen could easily claim to have captured them from Soviet and Afghan troops in battle.… Khomeini’s Iran got embroiled in war (against Iraq) otherwise Kabul would also have had to contend with the full might of the Islamic revolutionaries.” (Anwar ibid. p. 235).
Afghanistan had been occupied on 26-27 December 1979 by Soviet forces sent by the decrepit Leonid Brezhnev and Yuri Andropov to carry out a putsch replacing one communist, Hafizullah Amin, with a rival communist and Soviet protégé, Babrak Karmal. By 1985 Brezhnev and Andropov were dead and Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev had begun his attempts to reform the Soviet system, usher in openness, end the Cold War and in particular withdraw from Afghanistan, which by 1986 he had termed “a bleeding wound”. Gorbachev replaced Karmal with a new protégé Najibullah Khan, who was assigned the impossible task of bringing about national reconciliation with the Pakistan-based guerrillas and form a national government. Soviet forces withdrew from Afghanistan in February 1989 having lost 14,500 dead, while more than a million Afghans had been killed since the invasion a decade earlier.
Not long after Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution, Gregory Zinoviev had said that international communism “turns today to the peoples of the East and says to them, `Brothers, we summon you to a Holy War first of all against British imperialism!’ At this there were cries of Jehad! Jehad! And much brandishing of picturesque Oriental weapons.” (Treadgold, Twentieth Century Russia, 1990, p. 213). Now instead, the Afghan misadventure had contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Empire itself, the USSR ceasing to be a political entity by 1991, and even Gorbachev being displaced by Boris Yeltsin and later Vladimir Putin in a new Russia.
What resulted for the people of the USA and Britain and the West in general was that they no longer had to live under threat of hostile Soviet tanks and missiles, while the people of Russia, Ukraine and the other erstwhile Soviet republics as well as Eastern Europe were able to throw off the yoke of communism that had oppressed them since the Bolshevik Revolution and instead to breathe the air of freedom.
What happened to the people of Afghanistan, however, was that they were plunged into further ghastly civil war for more than ten years. And what happened to the people of Pakistan was that their country was left resembling a gigantic Islamist military camp, awash with airfields, arms, ammunition and trained guerrillas, as well as a military establishment enlivened as always by perpetual hope that these supplies, provisions and personnel of war might find alternative use in attacks against India over J& K. “We helped you when you wished to see the Soviet Union defeated and withdrawing in Afghanistan”, Pakistan’s generals and diplomats pleaded with the Americans and British, “now you must help us in our wish to see India defeated and withdrawing in Kashmir”. Pakistan’s leaders even believed that just as the Soviet Union had disintegrated afterwards, the Indian Union perhaps might be made to do the same. Not only were the two cases as different as chalk from cheese, Palmerstone’s dictum there are no permanent allies in the politics of nations could not have found more apt use than in what actually came to take place next.
Pakistan’s generals and diplomats felt betrayed by the loss of Anglo-American paternalism towards them after 1989.
Modern Pakistanis had never felt they subscribed to the Indian nationalist movement culminating in independence in August 1947. The Pakistani state now finally declared its independence in the world by exploding bombs in a nuclear arsenal secretly created with help purchased from China and North Korea. Pakistan’s leaders thus came to feel in some control of Pakistan’s destiny as a nation-state for the first time, more than fifty years after Pakistan’s formal creation in 1947. If nothing else, at least they had the Bomb.
Secondly, America and its allies would not be safe for long since the civil war they had left behind in Afghanistan while trying to defeat the USSR now became a brew from which arose a new threat of violent Islamism. Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, whom Pakistan’s military and the USA had promoted, now encouraged unprecedented attacks on the American mainland on September 11 2001 ~ causing physical and psychological damage which no Soviet, Chinese or Cuban missiles ever had been allowed to do. In response, America attacked and removed the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, once again receiving the cooperative use of Pakistani manpower and real estate ~ except now there was no longer any truck with the Pakistani establishment’s wish for a quid pro quo of Anglo-American support against India on J&K. Pakistan’s generals and diplomats soon realised their Anglo-American alliance of more than a half-century ended on September 11 2001. Their new cooperation was in killing or arresting and handing over fellow-Muslims and necessarily lacked their earlier feelings of subservience and ingratiation towards the Americans and British, and came to be done instead under at least some duress. No benefit could be reaped any more in the fight against India over Jammu & Kashmir. An era had ended in the subcontinent.